Wednesday, November 7, 2018

a conversation with Tony winner Jessie Mueller, who will be in concert at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts on November 17th

Jessie Mueller

by Gil Benbrook

Garnering great reviews as well as a Tony nomination for her work, Jessie Mueller exploded on the Broadway stage just seven short years ago in the revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.  Since then she's gone on to co-star in the revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood and play the leads in four Broadway shows, including last season's revival of Carousel and her Tony winning performance in 2014 as Carole King in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.

With four Tony nominations, and also starring in Waitress and co-starring with Matthew Broderick in Nice Work if You Can Get It, as well as playing Cinderella in the Shakespeare in the Park production of Into the Woods, Mueller has quickly become one of the go-to leading ladies of Broadway.

Mueller comes from the Chicago area, where here parents and some of her siblings are also actors; her sister Abby Mueller has also played the role of Carole King in both the national tour and Broadway run of Beautiful. Jessie graduated from Syracuse University's musical theatre program and honed her craft for several years post-college back home in the Chicago area where she starred and co-starred in a number of classic shows before moving to New York.

Mueller comes to Scottsdale for a concert with Seth Rudetsky on November 17th which will also feature Rudetsky asking in-depth questions of Jessie about her theatrical experiences and upbringing in between a song set that is sure to include many songs from Mueller's Broadway shows. While in Scottsdale Mueller will also be offering a master class for young performers on Friday, November 16th.

Before Rudetsky gets his time to ask Jessie some questions at her Scottsdale concert, I got the chance to put some questions of my own to Mueller about her past, present and future.

Jessie, first let me say that I'm incredibly honored to get to ask you some questions. Before moving to Phoenix I lived and worked in the NYC area for over 25 years and was fortunate to have seen you in your first three Broadway roles. As soon as I saw you take the stage in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever I knew you had a special gift and that you would be someone I'd enjoy watching grow and rise in the Broadway community. And your ascension has been fast, with four Tony nominations in just six Broadway shows in less than seven years, including winning for your performance in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.

Before we talk about your Broadway roles lets go back to your college days. What was your experience like in the Syracuse theatre program? And what was the most important thing that you learned while there?

"One of the things the Syracuse program does best is their focus on the individual.  I wasn't told to be a 'type,' I was encouraged to explore who I was and what I had to offer as a unique individual; something that can be slightly confusing when you're 19 and want the 'right' answers and a 'rulebook' for an uncertain profession.  But I value it so much now.  It really prepared me to embrace what made me different and use it as my strength."

After Syracuse, you went back to Chicago where you appeared in numerous shows, including playing parts in many classic musicals. I have to imagine those roles gave you a vast amount of experience that you may not have received if you had moved directly to NYC after school. What was your favorite role you played during that period in your life and why? And what was the most important thing you learned while in Chicago?

"Again, I feel my time in Chicago allowed me to work and learn on the job.  I wasn't bombarded with having to market myself in the same way I feel I would have had I moved to New York right away.  Maybe because it's a smaller pool?  I don't know.  But I was able to get cast in things and be in rehearsal rooms with the best of the best.  I got to be a sponge and do the work.  I've never loved the business side of all this.  I like to rehearse, I like to muck around, I like to get in there with people and play, that's the fun of it to me, not the hustle, not the photo shoots or the networking.  One of my favorite things I got to new in Chicago was a production of Animal Crackers at the Goodman.  That and maybe Guys and Dolls at the Marriott.  Two opportunities for me to really stretch and play."

Jessie Mueller and Harry Connick, Jr in
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever
photo by Paul Kolnik
You’ve worked with two huge stars, Harry Connick, Jr in your first Broadway show, and Matthew Broderick in your third, Nice Work if You Can Get It. What was that experience like? Did you have any trepidation working alongside such well known stars? And was there any specific advice they gave you?  

"I'm a lucky lady! Those gentleman are both absolute delights.  And I was spoiled coming from Chicago, getting to play opposite some of the most wonderful actors I've ever had the pleasure to work with.  But both Matthew and Harry are gentleman and know their stuff.  They welcomed me with open arms.  And yes, I was nervous.  But mostly because I respected them so much.  The beautiful thing was that I earned their respect in turn.  And then it was just fun!  Matthew was devilish.  I remember mixing up the verses in a certain song during our run of Nice Work together (I think several times!) and he got this grin on his face, highly enjoying the anticipation of how I was going to 'right' myself.  Then when I did it AGAIN one night he didn't even try to hide his delight.  Harry too was so much fun, and really became a mentor to me during our Clear Day process.  It was from him that I learned how to lead a company, or at least how I hope to. I had no idea at the time how much energy and strength and poise it took, because he made it look so easy.  He set the bar impossibly high!  But I revere him for it."

Jessie Mueller as Carole King in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
photo by Joan Marcus
Did you have any fear in playing such a beloved, talented and popular woman as Carole King? 

"One word, YES.  I was slightly terrified.  I thought, well, you gotta leap.  This is either going to be really great and something people will dive into with us and love or it could go really wrong and we could screw this up.  I'm happy to say I think we aligned more with the former.  The show just hit its 2000 performance on Broadway.  Audiences are still being charmed and moved by it and once we got Carole's seal of approval, I couldn't have asked for more.  We all felt a huge responsibility had been handed to us, and we took it very seriously."

Both Julie in Carousel and Jenna in Waitress were women involved in abusive relationships. While both characters were created long before the #metoo movement, I have to imagine that playing these women while news of these emotional stories of so many women involved in sexual assault and harassment instances was sweeping the country provided a new insight into these women. How did that impact how you portrayed these two women?

"It had always been a part of my awareness of the characters, and I'd like to think probably most women's.  I think the world at large was just catching up.  It certainly put a new lens on outside scrutiny, but my job was to be inside of it and get to the truth of the story.  I think because all of that hit when it did, for me, it was a rallying cry to not shy away.  I think a lot of people thought, oh you can't do this now.  But I thought, this is exactly why we should be doing this. "

Keala Settle, Jessie Mueller, and Kimiko Glenn
in Waitress
photo by Joan Marcus
One of your original co-stars in Waitress, Kimiko Glenn, grew up in Phoenix and I actually just saw her sister Amanda in a play in town. Both of these young women got their start in the youth theatres here in the Phoenix area. Did you also start out in youth theatre productions in Illinois? If you did, what was the most valuable thing you learned from that experience? And what advice would you give a youth actor who aspires to be on Broadway one day?

"Oh how fun!  You know, I never did theatre as a kid.  It wasn't really until high school that I got involved in plays.  I saw a lot of theatre, though, because my parents are actors.  But I didn't necessarily aspire to be on Broadway; that wasn't my goal.  I didn't really know what modern Broadway was, I thought it was Ethel Merman and the Runyonland of Guys and Dolls.  For me, I wanted to do the best work with the best people.  I think you can do that in a myriad of places.  And I feel blessed to have done it on Broadway.  My advice always is to focus on the work.  I think it speaks for itself.  You will land where you're supposed to land."

You’ve played dozens of leads and supporting characters in the shows you’ve been in while in Chicago as well as in the last several years in New York. Are there any dream roles you’re hoping to play one day? Maybe a revival of Sideshow starring you and your sister Abby?

"I think I'd like to tackle Mama Rose someday, or maybe the Witch in Into the Woods. As for Sideshow, I don't think I want to belt that high eight times a week.  That show is no joke!  I'd have to live like a nun!"

What can audiences in Scottsdale look forward to hearing you sing in your concert here? Any songs that you make sure to always include in your concerts, or any new ones you’ve just discovered that have quickly become a favorite? 

"They can expect some favorites from shows I've done but a few fun extras too.  And who knows, Seth and I might change it up a bit.  All you know with him is to expect the unexpected!"

CLICK HERE for more information on Jessie Mueller in Concert, with Seth Rudetsky at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts

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